Kirill Gerstein's most recent recital programme features works which push pedagogic forms to their extreme, exploring their cross-over into concert repertoire. While Liszt's Transcendental Etudes were full of colour and character, Gerstein failed to draw as much musical interest out of the repertoire in the first half.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Bartók's Mikrokosmos is comprised of 153 pedagogic pieces in six volumes, progressing from beginners' exercises to concert pieces. Gerstein opted for two chromatic inventions from the latter volumes, in which the composer blends Bach with folk music. Gerstein's hard touch highlighted the unsettled quality of the music, imbuing its searching lines with a sense of urgency. His subtle malleability of tempo, a defining characteristic of his playing throughout the evening, worked well as a respite from Bartók's frantic counterpoint.

Continuing into the melodic stream of C major Sinfonia of Bach's BWV787-801 almost without a break, Gerstein unravelled Bach's counterpoint with fluency and assurance. While this made for a polished performance, it felt oddly disconnected. Gerstein's Bach tended to be terraced, with major-key material sunny and bright and minor-key more introspective, often failing to further distinguish the characters of individual movements. There were exceptions: the nobility of the E flat major sinfonia, and the expansive melancholy of the F minor movement. Overall, though, there was a sense that the pianist was playing for himself, and not projecting his interpretations to the audience.

Gerstein really came alive for Liszt's Transcendental Etudes. Some movements still suffered from the tendency towards being overly polished, but many were much more vividly characterised. “Mazeppa” was all the more exciting for the manner in which Gerstein appeared to 'wrestle' with it – conveying both the spirit of the story and the infamous difficulty of the work as a whole. The central B flat major section was enchanting, and a sense of black humour in the following variations.

A mercurial, silvery touch suited “Feux follets”, lending a special quality to the unfurling arabesques, while “Eroica” was suitably commanding, performed with exuberance and bravado. While Gerstein was excellent at bringing a luminous tenderness to the more gentle movements, the climaxes of the dramatic scena often appeared strangely underwhelming: for example, the revelation of “Vision” lacked fullness and poignance. When he did succeed, though, the results were exhilarating: “Chasse-neige” developed from a tame sprinkling of snow to a furious squall to terrifying effect.

It seemed that Gerstein considered this concert to be one of two halves, and that was how it came across. The first half was simply 'played', without fuss or ceremony, while the second was packed full of drama and interpretative interest. This seemed rather odd for a concert which set out to explore the identity of pedagogic works as concert pieces: there was certainly enough which could be brought out in the first half, from the nervous, almost obsessive nature of Bartók to the key characters and gestures of the Bach. Where Gerstein set out to make a case for all three works, he was only convincing in his performance of the Liszt.

It had been some time since Gerstein's last solo recital performance in the UK, and while the programme allowed him to demonstrate his stamina and technical assurance, it perhaps wasn't the ideal repertoire for him to demonstrate his artistic personality. The glimpses we did receive were certainly captivating, but often felt hidden under the surface. While there was little wrong with the rest of the performance (a few technical slips aside), it often lacked that extra je ne sais quoi.